Beast of the Month - August 1998
Rick Kaplan, CNN President
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK"
US Navy Admiral Thomas Moorer, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Operation Tailwind
The last month has been a time for self-examination in the korporate media. Reports of journalistic fabrication have rocked the media establishment, in perfect time for the premiere of Brill's Content, brought to you by the self-proclaimed arbiter of proper journalism, Stephen Brill. (The magazine absurdly calls itself "the Independent Voice of the Information Age", despite having as major investors media baron Barry Diller - who runs The Jerry Springer Show - as well as real estate tycoon Howard Milstein and financier Lester Pollack. Yeah, real independent.) The self-examination is a reaction to an increasingly popular sentiment: that the korporate media is dishonest and inaccurate, giving people a very skewed vision of what is really going on. Perhaps it is no surprise that dubious sources (including the one you're reading right now) are becoming more and more popular.
There is one story, however, which has received an abnormal amount of airplay for being in error, and that is the report from CNN NewsStand (a joint product between CNN and Time Magazine) on the Vietnam War-era Operation Tailwind, called "Valley of Death". The report, after an eight month investigation which included the interviewing of about 200 witnesses, concluded that an SOG (Studies and Observations Group) team of Special forces were sent on a covert mission into Laos to hunt down and kill US "defectors" in September 1970. But the real bombshell of the report was that the special weapon they allegedly used in the attack was sarin, the lethal nerve gas developed by the Nazis that was used in the 1995 Tokyo subway terrorist attack.
The report was soon viciously attacked, and a probe by "First Amendment lawyer" Floyd Abrams concluded the allegations "couldn't be proven" and "overlooked contradictory evidence." The Pentagon, unsurprisingly, said it could find no evidence that U.S. troops used sarin gas during Tailwind. The two producers of the report, April Oliver and Jack Smith, were fired, and CNN, under the leadership of our Beast of the Month, CNN President Rick Kaplan, made a stunning retraction. Soon there was a chorus of pundits declaring this a prime example of reckless journalism. Yes, this was an example of journalistic excess, a case where a rush to make big headlines caused caution to be thrown into the wind, facts be damned. Even Matt Drudge gleefully chimed in, declaring (in capitals, no less) "BIG MEDIA BLOWS IT," flushed with the thrill of for once not being considered the most incompetent "journalist" on the planet.
To be fair, there are some arguments to the status quo version of the Operation Tailwind report. To begin with, CNN has recently felt heat from its competitors, most notably CNBC, who has given the cable-news kingpins a run for the money in ratings, most notably in the key 25- to 54-year old audience. A veteran CNN producer told Matt Drudge, "Yes, there was pressure to come up with a 'Big Story' for the debut of the new show." He then pointed the finger Rick Kaplan . "[Kaplan] was convinced that we needed something big to launch the show, even if we didn't have it pinned down. He ignored warning signs on the nerve gas... [NEWSSTAND] has been his pet project since the day he arrived."
Fair enough, and perhaps there are some dubious assertions in the Tailwind report. Still, the question must be asked: so what? Repeatedly, things are stated by the news media, handed to them by official sources, which turn out to be "unproven" at best and certainly bogus at worst.
On August 4, 1964, the second Gulf of Tonkin attack was reported to have happened, two days after the first. As Norman Solomon would note, "Across the United States, front pages presented fabrications as facts. The New York Times proclaimed that the U.S. government was retaliating 'after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.' The Washington Post's headline typified the national spin: 'American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression'." Time Magazine would chime in, giving a you-are-there description of the battle. Cheered on by the propaganda machine, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was approved by Congress, authorizing the president "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." It has since been revealed in history that the August 2nd attack by North Vietnam was in fact provoked, and the "second attack" was a phantom battle which never occurred. Unsurprisingly, none of the korporate media has ever retracted the bogus reports, for, as Murrey Marder (a reporter who wrote much of the Washington Post's coverage of the events) explained, "If you were making a retraction, you'd have to make a retraction of virtually everyone's entire coverage of the Vietnam War."
More recently, the CIA claimed it had missed advance signs of five nuclear tests in India, and then, with incredible chutzpah, used this in an attempt to get more funding. This claim was repeated uncritically by the korporate media, yet, as Norman Solomon would report, the CIA's claim was utterly implausible, and thus was likely a false ploy to increase the CIA budget.
These, of course, are just two prime examples. The point is, it isn't the truth or falsehood of a story which cause the korporate media to retract a story, but the implications of it. And the implications of the Operation Tailwind are enormous, even at face value.
How big are they? Here's a clue: Oliver and Smith (the two fired producers) claim that Tom Johnson and Kaplan, CNN's top executives, privately told them that they were concerned about pressure from Richard Helms, Henry Kissinger and Colin "Uncle Tom" Powell about the story. Helms, in case you didn't know, is the ex-CIA head during the Nixon era convicted of committing perjury, and the main man behind the notorious CIA MK-Ultra program. (Helms' name, curiously, was missing from the AP report on Smith and Oliver's statement.) Meanwhile, Kissinger (who has a history of death and deceit that rivals George Bush) was the National Security Adviser at the time, and thus any use of sarin would have had to have been approved by him. And despite the sales job of Powell to the masses, the fact is he lied to Congress during its Gulf War Syndrome "investigation", evading perjury charges himself only because, for some strange reason, they forgot to place him under oath (an honest mistake, no doubt.) So right away we're talking about three guys who have a level of truthfulness as close to zero as you can get. Despite their lack of honesty, the three do have something in common: they are insiders with lots of pull. There was also a threat of a cable boycott by veterans groups, no doubt manipulated by the same force triggering the three's visit. Soon after, the Abrams "investigation" of the Tailwind investigation was initiated. The Abrams report was co-written by David Kohler, CNN counsel, which "suggests that it is designed to absolve CNN management, including Mr. Kohler, of any responsibility," as Oliver and Smith correctly point out.
It could be that the story, at face value, was just so dangerous to the Pentagon in image control, it had to be squashed. As Oliver put it in a Washington Post op-ed piece:
The backlash was swift because the story wasn't pretty. Nerve gas. American defectors. A killing mission on neutral territory. A secret war with secret weapons. It inflamed old passions, creating another showdown between the military and the press over the great wound of our national psyche -- Vietnam.
And yet, maybe there is more to the suppression of this story. While most of the focus on the Tailwind story has been on if it was true, the other question that should be asked is "Why?" Why bomb and kill American soldiers, with or without the sarin gas? The explanation of them being "defectors" hardly explains the urgency of the operation. Thomas Moorer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1970 who stated that sarin was used in Tailwind (as well as in more than 20 other missions), tried to argue unconvincingly it was justified, stating, "I would be willing to use any weapon and any tactic to save the lives of American soldiers." Actually, Tom, this was to KILL American soldiers, not save them.
The motto of the SOG units was "Kill them all, and let God sort it out," a quote from the Crusades that would later become the title inspiration for the first Metallica album. Officially, SOG units didn't exist, but they were America's fiercest soldiers, conducting the most secretive of black operations. SOG veterans say they had no rules of engagement: anything was permissible as long as it was deniable. Robert Van Buskirk, then a 26-year-old lieutenant, was told to kill anyone encountered during the operation. "My orders were, if it's alive, if it breathes oxygen, if it urinates, if it defecates, kill it," Van Buskirk says.
Clearly, somebody in the Pentagon was very interested in wiping something out. Even those that dispute the CNN report agree to that much. The question then is, "What the hell were they so interested in destroying?"
A key SOG commander was Major-General John Singlaub, who was the founder of the fascist World Anti-Communist League. Among others, Oliver North and Richard Secord served under him. Singlaub also ran the murderous Phoenix Program in Vietnam, trained death squads in Latin America, and became a key background player in the Iran-Contra scandal. In Laos, Singlaub and his 40,000 member Laotian death squad backed an opium lord named Van Pao, helping to wipe out his business competitors. Soon after, Singlaub and his army was neck deep in the Golden Triangle heroin market, with the CIA-front Air America running weapons to them and taking their cash crop back home for profit. Some of the narco-dollars were laundered in Australia by the Nugan Hand bank, another noted CIA front. While the history books ignore all this, it appears to be central to what the Vietnam war about, so much that many people who've studied the war believe it was a smokescreen for those in the Pentagon to take over the international drug trade.
Suddenly, a very good explanation can be made for the Tailwind Operation: they were wiping out evidence of the Pentagon and CIA's heavy involvement (if not running) in drug operations. The involvement is pretty obvious to anyone who actually looks: Ross Perot discovered it when he began investigating the Vietnam POW cause in the eighties, learning that the government was silent about MIAs to cover up the drug involvement. It was center to the "Secret Team" lawsuit filed by Daniel Sheehan and the Christic Institute as well. Among the 29 defendants (who were alleged to be part of an international crime, drugs, and weapons syndicate) was John Singlaub. Singlaub, incidentally, was interviewed by the Oliver-Smith team, and would later join the campaign to discredit the Tailwind story.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that many of the same players in Operation Tailwind seem to swirl with the characters investigated by journalist Danny Casolaro. Casolaro started to look into a DOJ bilking of a software firm, but instead stumbled onto a mass conspiracy where mobsters and intelligence operatives are one in the same. Casolaro would soon die from severely slashed wrists before his investigation was complete.
Perhaps it is also no coincidence that the last story to be attacked as bitterly as Operation Tailwind was Gary Webb's "Dark Alliance" series in the San Jose Mercury News. The August 1996 series, which detailed the relationship between the CIA, the Contras, and the massive crack cocaine influx from Nicaragua, was dishonestly torched by the media establishment. (Ironically, one of the chief "Dark Alliance" debunkers, the L.A. Times Doyle McManus, had previously reported in the mid-eighties that Sandinista leaders were involved in cocaine trafficking. The report has since been completely discredited as Reagan-era propaganda, and it appears his sole source was Oliver North. Unsurprisingly, McManus was never even reprimanded for his serious journalistic error, the same one that Smith and Oliver have been supposedly fired over.) Webb's groundbreaking report was later disowned by the Mercury and its editor, Jerry Ceppos, and Webb was demoted last year in violation of his labor agreement. (Webb has since left journalism after receiving an undisclosed settlement.)
Because of the atrocious treatment of Gary Webb, Jerry Ceppos received our August 1997 Beast of the Month trophy. It is clear that, one year later, history is repeating itself. Rick Kaplan has clearly "pulled a Ceppos" on Oliver and Smith, caving into the pressure that has been put on him for a report that looks more and more accurate the closer it is examined. The investigation was eight months; the debunking took less than 30 days. Perhaps he has rescued CNN from getting shut out of exclusives from the next Nintendo War, but he has buried a perhaps flawed but nonetheless honest piece of journalism.
The treatment of April Oliver and Jack Smith, like Gary Webb before them, is a monument to the hypocricy of the media establishment that Rick Kaplan so clearly serves. The controversy in this story was never about truthfulness, but the conclusions it would lead people to if they bothered to really try to understand what Operation Tailwind was all about. The lesson of all this is simple: if you question the official story, you are destroyed. And that is a fact that hasn't changed, despite all the phony attempts at self-examination in the korporate media.
In any case, we salute you, Rick Kaplan, as Beast of the Month. Congratulations, and keep up the great work, Ricky!!!
"I Produced That Program -- And Was Fired"
April Oliver, The Washington Post (Sunday, July 12, 1998; Page C07)
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